Though the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) is considering a Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) system, this will not guarantee free and fair elections in 2018. The system is a piecemeal measure. Instead, the whole election environment should be taken into account in order to navigate the road map to a democratic Zimbabwean election.
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By Phillip Nyasha Fungurai
The election atmosphere in Zimbabwe is defined by a culture of fear, intimidation, misinformation, harassment, victimization and endemic uncertainty. In February 2016, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) made a public announcement that they were considering the adoption of a Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) system. The BVR has now been adopted and ZEC seconded Chinese based, Laxton Group Limited, to supply the kits. The BVR system, however, is not an adequate electoral malpractice antidote, and will not guarantee free and fair elections in 2018. The system is a piecemeal measure. Instead, the whole election environment should be taken into account in order to navigate the road map to a democratic Zimbabwean election.
In the conceptual lens of Prasad and Hari (2010) BVR is a technology that captures unique physical features such as finger-prints and facial scans for the purposes of identification. Unlike other options where the unique point of identification is the ID number and the photographic image verifiable by the naked eye, BVR uses a more sophisticated and reliable system where physical features unique to each individual are used. In the case of Zimbabwe, the system will therefore go a long way in ensuring a more transparent voter registration process. This will aid in addressing past election irregularities of ghost voters.
However it is imperative that the electorate understands that a credible election is not limited to a credible voter registration per se. Significant questions like – is there adherence to the rule of law? Is the media impartial? Is the electoral body independent? Do the electoral laws promote and facilitate free and fair elections? There are a host of factors and determinants to a credible and democratic election that are being overlooked because attention has been diluted by the BVR debate.
The biometric system was at some point introduced in Uganda, but the elections were deemed far from democratic by election observers. This implies that electoral reform is more than just about the biometric system. This is affirmed by Oosthuizen (2006:304–305) who holds that democratic and well-reformed elections as outlined in the “SADC election principles and guidelines” include full citizen participation in the political process; freedom of association; political tolerance; equal opportunities for all political parties to access the state media; equal opportunities to vote and be voted for; an independent judiciary, impartial electoral institutions; acceptance and respect by political parties of the election results proclaimed; and regular intervals for elections as constitutionally provided for. They also include the mandate and composition of SADC Election Observer Missions, a code of conduct for election observers, and the responsibilities of member states holding the elections, (Oosthuizen, 2006: 304-305).
The introduction of the BVR in Zimbabwe does not guarantee free and fair elections. On its own, BVR is not a panacea to the problems encountered in previous elections in Zimbabwe. Other processes and factors should be in place in order to complement the role of BVR in elections in Zimbabwe. The whole election environment (political, social, economic, legal, and technological) should be taken into consideration. The term democratic election itself should be unpacked to understand the content of democratic elections from an African perspective.
Controversies arise on the genuine yardstick that can be employed to weigh the level of democracy of any election, especially in the African context. It cannot be assumed that there is a common universal understanding of democracy. Crick in Guy (1995:18) opines that democracy is the most promiscuous word in global public affairs. From an African perspective, elections should encompass the principles of Ubuntu. These include respect of human dignity, the common good, individual and collective integrity; servant leadership, respect of the choice of others; the sanctity of human life; healthy community relationships; and tranquil-harmonious core existence. An election should be grounded in Ubuntu. Elections are not all about democracy and democracy is not all about elections. However while democracy is not all about elections, the absence of elections is symptomatic of an undemocratic system.
Despite all this, it is equally important to acknowledges the strengths and opportunities embedded in the BVR. The preliminary socket en route to any credible election is the voter registration process. An election that is both credible must preclude voters from voting more than once and unregistered voters from voting. The use of biometrics for automatic de-duplication, verification and authentication represents the best solution in ensuring an election with the highest integrity.
From the foregoing it is obvious that the current voter registration system in Zimbabwe is purportedly flawed and neither does it inspire confidence in the electoral process. The system is costly and time consuming. Data captured in the field in paper form is brought to a central place for data entry and this leads to a number of errors at data entry level. It also means that duplications on the roll are numerous. It does not take into account issues of credibility and transparency of the process. (Mwanyisa, 2016). BVR inspires confidence in the registration process. BVR will give rise to a highly accurate voters’ lists base for permanent voter register, which in turn will boost confidence of the electorate in the electoral process if done in accordance with international principles and standards.
Recommendations to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission
- The introduction of technology in voter registration needs to be implemented well in time before an electoral event and should be legally supported. The technology to be used should be independent from proprietorship (vendor locked).
- The success of the voter registration exercise in Zambia, for example, was attributed to national ownership and commitment by the Electoral Commission of Zambia. The process was inclusive and transparent with stakeholders being consulted and informed on a regular basis.
- Coordinated support through the basket fund managed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). UNDP also provided funding for the voter registration exercise as well as technical assistance for the roll out of the BVR. There was sufficient resource mobilization, fund management and full support from stakeholders hence its successful roll out. ZEC needs to do a swot analysis of itself and engage other stakeholders to fill its capacity gaps. It needs to take a step further and nurture national ownership and commitment of the whole election process by involving all necessary stakeholders without fear, favor and prejudice. It should be noted that the current mistrust and lack of confidence in the current voter registration is a result of a process that was shrouded in secrecy, was not open and transparent..
- A platform should be put in place to ensure dialogue and constant consultation and updates during the implementation of the BVR.
- The ZEC has to take into account capacity building. We have seen commissions elsewhere acquiring state of the art equipment that at times ends up idle because of a lack of skills. The ZEC should invest in capacity building of local personnel with knowledge (technical) and skills set to navigate through the biometric systems.
Phillip Nyasha Fungurai is an independent Peace and Governance Consultant and seasoned researcher. He has substantial experience in field research, peace education, civic education and peace building training. He is also passionate about peace, governance, democracy coupled with human rights issues at national, regional and global level. He works with various civil society organizations, research institutes and development think tanks in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and across the globe. Arguments and opinions herein are the author’s personal views and thus no institution or organization should be held accountable.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.